Hume, the self, and morals

I was fortunate to attend a fascinating talk a few weeks ago, hosted by Centre for Inquiry Ottawa and given by Professor Gordon Davis, the chair of the Philosophy Department at Carleton University. The talk was intended to celebrate the contributions of David Hume to science, skepticism and secularism during the year that marked the 30oth anniversary of his birth. Prof Davis gave a really fascinating, off-the-top-of-his-head summary of what he felt were the most important and most influential (not necessarily the same thing) contributions that Hume made. The entire talk was informative, especially for someone as philosophically illiterate as myself.

David Hume
David Hume, 1711-1776

However, one point that he made (while stating clearly that it was a questionable, though interesting, interpretation of Hume’s work) concerned Hume’s view of the self and how this can feed into the development of morals. You see, Hume did not believe that morality could be measured against an objective standard. Although he was not a relativist, he considered morals to be the product of emotions rather than rational thought. Despite this, Hume was a “good man” (without going in to too much of a dissection of the man’s character, he is generally considered to have behaved respectably when those around him did not) and furthermore he encouraged others to do the same. These appear to be two contradictory positions: (i) that there are no objective morals, and (ii) that people should seek to live morally virtuous lives.

Prof Davis pointed out that Hume’s views changed over time (his writing was published over the course of 42 years of his life as well as posthumous publications of his more inflammatory works on religion) and so it is conceivable that we are simply seeing “different Humes” at different points. However, there is a subtly-related point that was also made. Hume made a number of interesting points concerning what constitutes “the self”, including the proposal that “oneself” at one time point was not the same as “oneself” at others. He may have been referring to the notion that we change psychologically or spiritually (although he didn’t believe in an immortal spirit) over time, but it is also true, as we now know, that living beings change physically over time as atoms and molecules that make up our bodies are lost and added.  This idea put me in mind of this neat little video that I found a couple of months ago:

So what relevance does this have for morality?  Well, as far as my interpretation of the talk goes, I understood Hume to be calling into question the merit of selfish acts when we have no concrete concept of a self who can benefit.  If I steal a lady’s purse in the street so that I can accumulate personal wealth, I am doing that for a future me.  It is of no direct benefit to me right this moment, and in the future I will be a different person.  I will not benefit myself.  When we look at moral acts this way, it becomes apparent that our future selves are only slightly more related to our present selves than any other selves, and suddenly the concept of selfishness over altruism becomes a little less clear cut.  If an altruistic act is one that benefits another at a cost to oneself, then all actions – even supposedly selfish actions – are altruistic because they benefit different people.  An interesting thought…

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